039 June 20, 2015 -- (video)

"Aferim" is a word borrowed into various Balkan languages from Ottoman Turkish, usually uttered as a sign of appreciation or approval, similarly to "bravo". The word is, I suppose, gone from all modern languages1 since after the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire evolved into what we know today as the Republic of Turkey. It's relevant to mention that words of Turkish origin have been in use in the Balkans, and particularly in the so-called "Romanian countries", for at least five centuries, especially in the southern parts, and especially in urban settings, by public servants and politicians.

The movie Aferim! takes place in the 1830s Wallachia. While not explicitly provided as background, the country's political and social status was at that time somewhat uncertain, as the Ottomans were losing more and more ground to the Moskals -- that is, the Russians -- after the end of the Phanariote rules and the adoption of various so-called "reforms". This also happens immediately after the population went through some nasty epidemics such as Caragea's plague, which is hinted in the movie by the many graves we get to see.

The movie's plot is slightly uninteresting from head to tail: the boyar Iordache sends Costandin and his son Ioniță to find some Gypsy slave2 who ran away from the estate after fucking the rich man's wife. I'm guessing this was commonplace at that time, as it always was and will always be, and such it can only be seen as support for the really important stuff, comprised by everything that happens in-between. You probably don't see this very often in American movies, but we Eastern Europeans are very good at this type of storytelling, just have a look at Tarkovsky, Caragiale and Dostoevsky.

So in the end Carfin's balls are cut off and thrown at Sultana's face, but the ending is not what's important, although Costandin's, and in the end our journey is, each scene depicting one or more typical, and purely, Romanian traits: the superstitious Christian Orthodox priest who is also a fervent antisemite; the old man philosophizing about the nature of life; the oppressed, yet free in every other respect, Gypsy slave; the man just carelessly passing by near someone in need; the corrupt public servant, and I could go on and on. Some people might feel inclined to compare this to, say, Twelve Years a Slave, or Django Unchained or whatever Hollywood movies you've been watching lately. This is not an apt comparison, by any means: the language isn't gratuituous, this is just the way Romanians have been talking for centuries; the violence isn't gratuitous3; everything from the mud, to crosses stuck in the ground and the guy saying "aferim!" out loud says something about how Romanians were, and still are.

This is the thick substance that makes up Aferim!, which ultimately makes it a pretty heavy piece4. The authors manage to compress an entire people's habits -- especially the ones that an outsider may consider "bad" or just plain odd -- in about one hour and a half of film, which on one hand shows that the core Romanian character isn't that difficult to express, especially since the actors are Romanians themselves, and on the other hand makes up a demonstration of the storyteller and director's skills. Well, let's just say Radu Jude's Silver Bear Award is a pretty good sign that I'm right.

I for one have gone to the movie with no expectations and left the room properly satisfied. My biggest disappointment was to see that the Bulgarian state television had more contributions to the movie than the Romanian state, which didn't finance it at all, despite it being worth every penny5. The leftovers of the communist era have left at least some unexploited resources in our movie industry and it's good to see that our directors and writers are exploring more or less original themes.

At some point in the movie the authors address the public through Costandin the zapciu, who is asking his son whether people will remember his generation in a century or two, and whether they'll think his generation was a good one or not. I think this is the movie's best reflection point, and it should make anyone wonder whether their actions will have any echoes throughout history.

  1. Modern Turkish uses Beğenmek among others. "Aferim!", as we Romanians know it, is now only a word in an old Ottoman-French dictionary, as well as in our own DEX.

  2. The slur "cioară" (or "cioroi", literally meaning "crow") is being used throughout the movie, not unlike the American "nigger" used in reference to black slaves at about the same time in history.

  3. Ok, maybe the violence in Twelve Years a Slave wasn't gratuitous either. I don't know, to be honest.

  4. Maybe not as much for us Romanians, who can easily recognize every little nitpick, as for the Westerners watching this movie, and who, if they watch carefully, may get a glimpse of insight into the Romanian's way of being and thinking.

  5. So if you haven't been able to see through that dumb nationalism of yours yet, then fuck you.